‘Don’t make me laugh!’ Is the Bible funny?


Clown-Face-(2c)++2013-T-ShirtsI’m not a big fan of the theory that the Bible is full of jokes.

I was brought up in a church culture where Christian drama groups were all the rage, and they tried to persuade us that the man with the plank in his eye was a funny idea.  It wasn’t.  In the Bible, the fool is many things including an atheist, but he’s never given airtime as a stand-up.

Even Riding Lights, the best of the crop, had to import their jokes into the story.  And to my mind, it says a lot that their funniest sketch was about Christian drama.

So why have people started laughing at church?

Or to be more specific, why have people laughed, at the same point, across all the services, at the same point during two different bible readings.

We are starting to go through Exodus, and the first set of laughs came at the explanation of the Hebrew midwives as to why they had not been able to kill the baby boys.  The Hebrew women, they say, are so healthy that they didn’t need midwives, and the babies pop out of their own accord.

Cue the laughter.  Why?  Well, possibly at the sheer implausibility of the explanation.  But more likely at the gullibility of Pharaoh and his court, who seem to swallow the story whole.

I, sitting at my desk, had seen this story as a moral question to be solved (the answer, by the way, is that if you are caught in a place where the only choice is between lying and being complicit in genocide, you may lie; in all other circumstances tell the truth).  But the listeners enjoyed the quick-wittedness of the midwives and the stupidity of the king. So, it appears, did God, by the way he gave the midwives families of their own, which is quite a moving touch, when you think about it.

Then yesterday, as we read how Moses stepped in to stop some bullies threatening seven young women, we read the exasperation of the father with his daughters that they had let a man – an Egyptian prince with tendencies to be a hero – slip through their fingers. ‘And where is he?’ Reuel asked his daughters. ‘Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.’ and Moses is married, with newborn, before you can blink.

Reuel is Mrs Bennet, but with more daughters.

The lesson?  That biblical narratives are cracking stories, superbly told, and we must be alert to the  way tension, release – and, yes, humour – take their part.  I’m still cautious about this, in part because humour is so culturally precise, and I’ve discovered that my English mode of understatement does not play well elsewhere.  And I’m very wary of imposing stuff into a text.

But still.


You can read more about my approach to preaching the Bible in Cutting to the Heart

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5 comments on “‘Don’t make me laugh!’ Is the Bible funny?”

  1. surely the fool can be a source of humour without being a stand-up? Doesn’t Jesus regularly use a humourous caricature as a sifting device?

    1. Well, that’s my question – does he? I’m thinking that is something we overlay on his material rather than something intrinsic to it. We don’t know when he laughed, but he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

      1. Interesting. I wouldn’t be confident saying when or even whether Jesus laughed, but I do feel that he is regularly using caricature as a rhetorical device. I find it hard to believe that the Pharisees actually stood on street corners or actually had trumpets announce their giving. You’ve mentioned the plank in the eye. I take Luke 12v19 as ironic given the saying ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. If that’s right then these are humourous devices aren’t they? God does mock fools and laugh at them (psalm 2), perhaps Jesus’ humour is a revelation of that divine attribute?

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